Mandos

Authorial intent strikes back

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You may not believe in the primacy of authorial intent, but it sure believes in you! A little brouhaha has broken out over this awesome piece of performance art in app form called the “CleanReader”, an e-book reader app that does exactly what you think it does: it’s an auto-Bowdlerizer. It works like this: you download e-books via one of the intermediaries, and at the point of display, the app replaces sexual and curse words with a selection of other words deemed less harmful to children (or derailing for prudish adults).

Devised by conservatively-minded American parents frustrated at the ever-shrinking proportion of mainstream media content that their maturing children can consume without being exposed to swear words and sexual vocabulary, it has attracted a small controversy, as it is viewed as an attack on the “moral rights” of authors and publishers to defend against misrepresentation of the intent of their work.

Because of the controversy, the creators of the app backed down, bowing to the intent of the authors and withdrawing the attached bookstore, but not before they had said things that are revealing of their attitude towards literature that proved to be particularly offensive to the authors:

I suppose these same people would hate going to dinner with me at a restaurant. I’m not a fan of blue cheese. Some friends of mine love it. I’ve tried to learn to like it, tasted it several times in several different settings and dishes. To me it tastes like furniture lacquer. When I get a salad at a restaurant and the chef thinks the salad is best served with blue cheese on it, I will spend a significant amount of time trying to find and remove every piece of blue cheese. Then I’m able to enjoy the salad. In the restaurant world the chef is the artist. He has spent his entire professional life trying to create masterful pieces of art to be served on a dish or in a bowl. Is the chef offended when I don’t eat the blue cheese? Perhaps. Do I care? Nope. I payed good money for the food and if I want to consume only part of it then I have that right. Everyone else at the table can consume their food however they want. Me removing the blue cheese from my salad doesn’t impact anyone else at the table. … They’ve paid good money for the book, they can consume it how they want.


You can just imagine how this went down with many authors. The author of Chocolat, Joanne Harris, had this to say:

By sending my book out into the world, I’m giving you entry to my heart. It is a gesture of trust. And I expect you, in return, to trust that what I write is as honest and true as I could possibly make it. That means trusting me when I say that I have thought about every word; considered each one carefully.

And she says this in the context of a Facebook post by a reader, which she quotes:
Are you authors serious? Reading these comments by some of you is surprising and discouraging. The fact is that we readers would love to hear some of your creative stories without the icky unnecessary junk language.


And here we get to the root of the conflict, which touches on themes about which I have written before, about the place of “legacy” orthodox societies stuck in a world in which the mores have changed, and their desire to perpetuate their mores through their children. The creators of this app, in this case, belong to what was in the not-too-distant past, the dominant perspective. In their minds, there was even recently the possibility of accessing “majority” culture without (they believe) encountering as many reminders of “unwholesomeness” as they do now. And so for them, technology has suddenly presented to them a fair way for them to access literary culture, a kind of compromise between author and reader.

But the authors are having none of this. They mean what they wrote and intend for the reader to absorb the message they intended to send. As one of them writes:

I submit that those critics don’t know what they’re talking about and are idiots. (I will allow an honorable exception for any critics making such claims who are also successful novelists in their own right. But in the absence of experience, they’re like the Pope talking about sex: a purely theoretical exercise by a presumptive celibate.)


In other words, no compromise whatsoever with a position that the reader has any “authority” over the text.

For what it’s worth, I take the position of Cory Doctorow that it is better to give traditionalists an…honourable way in to accessing entartete Kunst popular culture than not.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on April 4, 2015 1:28 PM.

Politically sidelined, Part 3: Silos and Enclaves was the previous entry in this blog.

Politically sidelined, Part 3: Silos and Enclaves (2) is the next entry in this blog.

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